Chapter XVII
 

After the mass was over the boys learned the sequel of the morning's terrible adventure. Between the second valley and the wood the cattle, diverted by one of those mysterious impulses which govern masses of all grades of intelligence, had deflected suddenly and raced for the hills. The gay company was much shaken, but somewhat restored by the calm of the church and the solemn monotonous roll of Father Osuna's voice. They cantered slowly homeward, and crossed themselves fervently when they saw the Casa Encarnacion none the worse for her shaking, beyond a few fallen tiles. After dinner and siesta they recovered their natural spirits, and the men and boys went forth with the vaqueros to hunt the cattle. These were found at the foot of the mountain, weary and humble. Not a horn was tossed in defiance at the volley of abuse hurled upon them, and they allowed themselves to be driven to the ranches of their respective owners without a protest.

That evening the household and guests of Casa Encarnacion spent in music and dancing; so light of heart and careless of mind were the people of that time and country.

A number of cattle had been trampled to death in the stampede, and the bodies lay within a few miles of the mountains. It was inevitable that bears would come out to eat the carcasses. On the night of the day of terrifying memory no one felt equal to the exertion of another ten mile ride and the subsequent battle with a possible herd of bears. But at eight o'clock on the following night Don Tiburcio, Padre Osuna, the boys, some ten of the caballeros, and as many vaqueros mounted and rode forth for a good night's sport. The moon was thin and low. As they approached the spot where the first of the wild band had succumbed to fatigue they saw a dark object moving beside the carcass. The approach was stealthy, but the bear suddenly raised his head. In a second five or six lassos had sprung through the air. One caught the bear--a brown bear of moderate size--about the neck, another about a hind leg. The brute drew his legs together like a bucking horse and leaped into the air, then plunged toward his tormentors; but those that had him in lasso galloped in different directions, and poor bruin was quickly strained and strangled to death. Two vaqueros were left to skin him, and the party rode on. In a very few moments they saw a moving group some distance ahead. Spurring their mustangs they dashed forward, letting the lassos fly. Now the sport became truly exciting and dangerous. Some six or eight brown bears, of varying sizes, growled furiously and bounded toward the intruders. Three were caught in the meshes of the rope, the others were making straight for the horses. There was only one thing to do. The men put spurs and galloped rapidly away, the bears plunging heavily in pursuit. When the men had outdistanced the bears by a hundred yards or more, they wheeled suddenly and trotted back, once more letting fly the lasso. This time all but one were roped; as they kicked in fury, their hind legs were caught by the lariats held in reserve; and there followed a scene of plunging and springing, galloping, shouting, growling; and neighing, for the mustangs were fully alive to their part.

The one bear at liberty rode straight for Roldan.

He had hurled his lasso with the rest, and it was trailing. He jerked about and fled for a mile or more, holding on with his legs while both hands were occupied gathering in the rope and coiling it about the high pommel of his saddle. Then he turned and charged full at the bear, who was hot in pursuit and no mean runner. He hurled the lariat. It fell short, and lay quivering on the ground like a huge wounded snake. Roldan gave an exclamation, of surprise as much as of dismay: he was an expert with the rope. He turned, however, dragging it in. It caught about the mustang's hind legs. The beast went down, neighing with horror. Roldan tried to jerk him to his feet. He seemed hopelessly entangled. Roldan extricated himself, knowing that he was comparatively safe, as bears prefer horse-meat to man's. He had no sooner got his feet free of the boots than the mustang leaped to his feet and fled like a hare, dragging the lariat in a straight line after him.

Roldan was alone, the bear not ten yards away. The rest of his party were a mile and more behind. No one apparently had noticed his flight with the solitary bear. The light was uncertain and the excitement over there intense.

Roldan took to his agile young heels. But the bear gathered himself and leaped, not once but several times. There was no doubt that his blood was up, and that he meant a duel to the death. Roldan turned with a catching of what breath was left in him. He mechanically drew his knife from its pocket and flourished it at the advancing bear. Bruin cared as little for steel as for rope. He came on with a mighty growl.

Roldan gave one rapid glance about. There was not even a tree in sight. From his point of departure an object seemed approaching, but it was too dark to tell as yet whether it was a horseman or another bear. The brute was almost on him, panting mightily. All the senses between Roldan's skeleton and his skin concentrated in the determination to live. He sprang forward and plunged his long knife into the protruding injected eye of the bear, then leaped aside, his dripping knife in his hand, and danced about the maddened beast with the agility of a modern prize- fighter. The bear, too, danced, as if obsessed by some infernal music; and the skipping, and leaping, and dodging, and waltzing of these two would have been ludicrous had it not been a matter of life and horrid death. Through it all Roldan was vaguely conscious of approaching hoofbeats, but there was no room in his consciousness for hope or despair. He was not even aware that he was panting as if his lungs and throat were bursting, nor even that his vision was a trifle blurred from constant and rapid change of focus and surcharged veins. But he executed his dance of life as unerringly as if fresh from his bed and bath. The bear, a clumsy creature at best, and streaming and blinded with his blood, was slackening a little, but there was life in him yet, and twice its measure of vengeance. Suddenly he lay down, but became so abruptly inert that Roldan was not deceived. Instead of putting himself within reach of those waiting arms he fled with all his strength. It was then that he knew how fully that strength was spent: his lungs and legs refused to work with his will and impulse after the first hundred yards, and he fell to the ground with a sensation of utter indifference, longing only for physical rest. He heard the bear plunging after, the loud sound of a horse's hoofs, mingled with a single shout, then gave up his consciousness.

He awoke in a few moments. Adan was bending over him, propping his head. "The bear?" he demanded, ashamed of the pitiful quality of his voice.

"I came just in time to rope him," replied Adan. "You were a fool, my friend, to go off alone like that--but very brave," he added hastily, knowing that Roldan did not like criticism.

"You are quite right. And this is the second time you and your lariat have saved me. Perhaps it may be the other way some time."

"Likely it will if you go on hunting for adventures as the old women hunt for fleas of a night. Do you feel able to get on my horse? It will carry the two of us."

"If I were not equal to that much I should find another bear and go to sleep in his arms."